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Actors Have Tough Sneakers to Fill

Even though it's the land of make-believe, Hollywood wants sports movies to seem as real as ESPN.

For roles in recent films like "Friday Night Lights," (search), "Wimbledon" and "Miracle," stars have turned to coaches and personal trainers to help them look like jocks in front of the camera.

But can actors truly portray the talent and experience of a real athlete? Trainer to the stars Gunnar Peterson (search) says they can — if they work at it.

"Some actors say, ‘You can't train me like an athlete,' and I say, ‘You have to.'" On the other hand, "some actors will insist on doing it just like an athlete," said Peterson, a Beverly Hills-based personal trainer who has worked with actors like Jennifer Lopez, Matthew McConaughey and Angelina Jolie and athletes like Mike Tyson and Pete Sampras.

Peterson whipped Garrett Hedlund (search) into shape for his role as a football player in "Friday Night Lights," the current film about a Texas town obsessed with its high school team.

"We had to keep his strength up … but he couldn't be overly developed," said Peterson, who didn’t want Hedlund to seem too muscular for a teen. The training also involved "creating muscle memory by putting [Hedlund] through certain moves," as well as footwork drills, because "if he runs like a spaz, that's not gonna fly."

But Ben Boyer, a sports fan from Los Angeles who was very impressed with "Friday Night Lights," said actors in general could definitely use some help with their athletic skills.

"Ninety-five percent of people you see playing basketball in movies shoot like my grandmother," he said.

Former National Hockey League star Derek Sanderson (search) said thespians cannot understand what it's like to be in sports, and therefore cannot convey sportsmanship.

"Actors cannot relate to what drives an athlete," he said. "They do not respect the sacrifice, the dedication it took from age 6, 7, 8."

Sanderson, who won the Rookie of the Year award in the late '60s and a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 1970, said actors would do well to observe athletes' more subtle attributes, from the way they act in the locker room to the way they sit and walk.

"We walk differently than other people. We walk to intimidate, we walk to separate, we walk to challenge," he said, pointing out that Tim Robbins knew how to throw a ball in "Bull Durham," but "he didn't look like a pitcher."

Sanderson, who was known as an enforcer in the NHL and now works as an investment manager, said he's never seen a director "capture the fear" of competing at the highest level, or the violence of sports like hockey, in which "guys out there want to hurt you."

Most of all, actors can't replicate the thrill of winning, he said.

"All these people who try to simulate joy from a victory — it cannot be done."

In the stars' defense, Boyer pointed out that high-profile A-listers might have trouble convincing as athletes after being identified with memorable characters, as Kevin Costner (search) tried to do in "For the Love of the Game." (search)

"That's Robin Hood trying to pitch," he said.

But others say some actors do have game. Matthew Hancock, a New York City-based theater director, cited the "Rocky" (search) films — especially the first one — as an example of a celebrity successfully ditching his off-screen persona and convincing as an athlete.

"You forget that it's Sylvester Stallone completely," he raved.

Hancock added that the realism of the movie "Ali" (search) (2001) probably owed more to director Michael Mann than star Will Smith (search). But he believed Denzel Washington (search) as a boxer in "The Hurricane" (search) (1999), and thought the stars of "White Men Can’t Jump" (search) could really shoot hoops.

"I believed Woody Harrelson (search) was really good at basketball," he said.

Peterson added that stars who hope to credibly play athletes face savvier filmgoers today than ever before, due to all the behind-the-scenes and making-of shows.

"I have a 6-year-old kid who'll say, ‘Dad, that's fake,'" he said.

And some people are just waiting for the big names to fail, Boyer acknowledged.

"Audiences are always going to be on the lookout for the A-list actor who throws like a girl."